How you can help your child have a healthy body image.

By Laura Flynn McCarthy

The Girl Box

When she was just 11, Julia Remillard of Kittery Point, Maine, was watching music videos at a sleepover with her friends and talking about how perfect the girls in the videos looked. "They were blond and really skinny," Julia recalls. "Later my friends and I went online and took a quiz to see if we were a normal weight. Even though it said I wasn't overweight, I didn't feel very good about my body." Around the same time, her mom, Susan, noticed that her daughter would frequently look in the mirror, asking her such questions as, "Mom, if I was really fat, would you tell me?"

Susan set out to dispel any distorted notions her tween daughter was having about her body. At the mall she pointed out how mannequins were so unrealistically thin that clothes were sometimes clipped together in the back to fit them. When she found Julia watching music videos on her computer, Susan watched them with her, discussing how not everyone can attain a dancer's body.

Like many tween girls, Julia was on the verge of entering a trap called the Girl Box. "It's that imaginary place where the way a girl looks becomes more important than who she is, and doing what will make her popular trumps doing what she loves," explains Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run International (GOTRI), an organization that encourages preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through exercise and adult-led group conversations.

Julie joined a GOTRI group at her school, where she and other girls ages 8 to 13 would meet for 2-mile runs and then talk about healthy ways to take care of their bodies and what makes each of them unique. "I'd show them pictures of models or celebrities," says Susan, who became the group coach, "and ask questions such as 'Is this too sexy?' 'What kind of look is this like?' 'Is this girl being true to herself of is she being fake?' Inevitably their answers were right on the money, but they still felt this incredible pressure to conform to ideals about what's sexy or alluring."

Unrealistic Standards

Now 13, Julia seems to have escaped the Girl Box. She eats a healthy diet without obsessing over food and loves to exercise for the fun and camaraderie of it. But for many kids her age, maintaining a positive body image is an ongoing challenge. In one recent study more than half of the 13-year-old girls and three-quarters of the 17-year-old girls said they were "unhappy with their bodies." That number climbs to 80% by the time girls reach adulthood. Although some girls complain about specific body parts ("my breasts are too small, my thighs are too big"), the overwhelming concern is not being thin enough.

Boys don't want to be overweight either, but being thin isn't as desirable as achieving a strong, athletic ideal. "Male models are now more buff and perfectly sculpted, and so are athletes such as basketball star LeBron James, acts such as Mark Whalberg, and singers such as Usher, whom boys look up to," says Linda Smolak, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. "Compare them with teen idols of a generation ago—Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise or Jon Bon Jovi, none of whom was excessively muscular—and you see a major shift in body-image role models for boys.:

Unrealistic body ideas not only affect a child's self-image but also may lead her to try dangerous behaviors to achieve those standards. Recent research shows that close to half of girls ages 9 to 11 are "sometimes" or "very often" on diets, compromising their nutrition at a time when their bodies are rapidly developing. It becomes more pervasive into adulthood; 91% of college-age women report dieting. And these restrictive eating patterns can lead to eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia typically start in the teen years and affect about 5 million to 10 million American girls and young women and about 1 million American boys and men, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

When Harvard researchers studied more than 6,900 girls ages 9 to 14, they found that vomiting or taking laxatives to control weight increased 30% to 40% among girls who said they were trying to look like women on TV, in movies, or in magazines. And while these behaviors are less common in boys, a separate study found that boys are three times more likely than girls to use products such as protein powder or shakes, creatine (a performance-enhancing supplement), steroids, and growth hormone, especially if they also read health and fitness magazines featuring muscular male figures.

How You Can Help

A positive body image is a vital weapon against the development of an eating disorder. You can do a to encourage your teen to feel good about himself.

Arm kids with the factsExplain what happens to their bodies during puberty. "Teach your kids that we all develop at different ages, undergo changes at different rates, and that what we look like in the end varies tremendously from person to person," says David S. Rosen, M.D., M.P.H., professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and chief of the section of teenage and young adult health. "Most of that variability is genetically determined, and there's nothing anyone can do to change that."

Emphasize healthy eating, not dietingA recent study of more than 9,000 adolescents found that girls whose mothers frequently dieted were more likely to diet themselves and to frequently think about wanting to be thinner. (Boys, on the other hand, don't seem to be as affected.) "Every time you worry aloud about what you eat, whether your thighs are big or if you'll fit into your bathing suit, you send a message," says Dr. Rosen. "You signal that your self-worth is defined by how you look, and how you look is defined by what you weight." Instead, let your child see you enjoy being physically active and taking good care of your body.

Filter media messages"Point out that when your kid sees models in a magazine, a team of people have worked on their hair, makeup, and clothes, and that the picture has been airbrushed and shaded to remove flaws," says Allison E. Field, Sc.D., an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and cofounder of the Growing Up Today Study, an ongoing report on adolescents.

FC FACT: A girl's growth spurt typically starts a year after breast budding. Between the ages 9 and 16, girls grow 10 inches and gain 5 pounds annually.

Copyright &copy 2007. Used with permission from the November 1, 2007, issue of Family Circle magazine.